Ritual slaughter, EU Court of Justice gives green light to reversible stunning requirement


The EU Court of Justice has ruled for the third time in three years on ritual slaughter. To affirm, in judgment 17.12.20, the legality of measures prescribing reversible stunning in member states. (1) Insights and reflections.

Ritual slaughter, the regional law of Flanders

The Belgian Constitutional Court has been asked to rule on the compatibility of Flanders’ regional law 7.7.17-which mandated the sedation of animals, by reversible (i.e., temporary, and unfit to cause their death) stunning, prior to ritual slaughter-with freedom of religion.

A preliminary question on the relationship between freedom of religion and animal welfare-which are respectively guaranteed by the European Charter of Fundamental Rights (ECHR, Article 10) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU, Article 13)-has therefore been referred to the EU Court of Justice.

Reg. EC 1099/09, Animal Slaughter Regulation

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is actually called upon to rule on the application of the so-called Animal Slaughter Regulation. Reg. EC 1099/09, like already Directive 93/119/EC, in fact requires that ‘animals shall be killed only after stunning‘ (Art. 4.1). Albeit, since time immemorial, with an exception in favor of animals subjected to special slaughtering methods prescribed by religious rites (Article 4.4).

The said regulation-in regulating ritual slaughter, in Annex III-requires that the animal be bled to death following a precise cut of the throat, with a sharp blade, in order to minimize the animal’s suffering. ‘Systematic severance of both carotid arteries or the blood vessels from which they branch‘ are prescribed for this purpose, using appropriate knives for ‘use and maintenance,’ and other requirements. (7)

Ritual slaughter and concurrent legislation

‘EC Regulation no. 1099/2009 does not preclude member states from imposing a requirement of stunning prior to the slaughter of animals, which is also applicable in the context of slaughter prescribed by religious rites, provided, however, that in doing so, member states respect the fundamental rights enshrined in the Charter.’ (1)

Concurrent legislation by member states may therefore result in a partial restriction on the exercise of the right to manifest Jewish and Muslim religions, according to the EU Court of Justice. In the name of an ‘objective of general interest recognized by the Union, such as the promotion of animal welfare‘. To the extent that such standards are found to be proportionate, as required by the European Charter on Human Rights (Art. 52.3).

Equilibrium and proportionality, the reversible stunning hypothesis

The ‘right balance between religious freedom and animal welfare can thus be achieved, according to the ECJ, precisely through a rule such as the one adopted by the Flanders Region. Where the reversible stunning prescribed therein may be worth avoiding unnecessary suffering to animals that must remain intact and healthy at the time of slaughter and die by bleeding, according to the dictates of the Jewish and Muslim religions.

The European Authority for Food Safety (EFSA) in turn – in its scientific opinion 3.11.20 ‘Welfare of cattle at slaughter‘ – stated that ‘Slaughter without stunning should not be practiced‘ e ‘Pre-cutting stunning is the only preventive measure (suitable to mitigate) welfare consequences related to cutting‘. (8) Without, however, going into reversible stunning and related technologies.

Background (1). Green light for national bans on ritual slaughter outside licensed facilities

In 2018, the ECJ had already intervened on another issue related to ritual slaughter, in the case brought by the League of Mosques of the Vlaams Gewest (Belgium) against the Minister of the Region of Flanders for Mobility, Public Works, Flemish Periphery, Tourism and Animal Welfare. Following its decision 12.9.14 to discontinue permits for the ritual slaughter of animals without stunning, during the Muslim festival of sacrifice, in temporary slaughter premises located in the Region’s municipalities, as of 2015.

The Tribunal of first instance Dutch-speaking Brussels had referred a question to the EU Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling, regarding the compatibility of the said decision with the freedom of religion proclaimed in Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the consequent duty to respect national customs regarding religious rites. And the Court, in a ruling on 29.5.18, had ruled on the legitimacy of the obligation to carry out ritual slaughtering in a slaughterhouse that complies with the requirements set by the 853/2004 (so-called Hygiene 2). (3)

Background (2). No organic logo on products from animals slaughtered without stunning

In 2019, the ECJ had then ruled that the organic production logo cannot be placed on products derived from animals slaughtered without prior stunning. (4) According to the Luxembourg courts, these techniques are unable to minimize animal suffering and are therefore not compatible with the principles underlying the biological system.

‘Organic production is a comprehensive system of farm management and agribusiness production based on the interaction of best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, and the application of strict animal welfare criteria (…)’ (5,6)

Animal welfare in the EU. Interim conclusions

Reg. EC 1099/09, on closer inspection, established a set of requirements to minimize animal suffering during slaughtering by ritual slaughter. (7) And it is evident-both in the EFSA Scientific Opinion 3.11.20 and in the European Court of Auditors’ Special Report 31/2018-how animal welfare, which is still lacking in the EU, depends first and foremost on the proper fulfillment of the rules established in the EU, as well as the effectiveness and efficiency of public veterinary controls (8,9).

Therefore, the European Commission urgently needs to adopt a reform of EU animal welfare policy, which has already been unjustifiably delayed. (10) With two primary goals:

Ensure the uniform and effective implementation of shared rules with all relevant social partners, including representatives of the Jewish and Muslim religions and CIWF(Compassion in World Farming). Also devoting attention to the evolution of reversible stunning techniques,

End double standards between countries that comply and those that routinely violate standards protecting animal welfare, workers’ rights and the environment, and fair trade practices. In the EU and the UK. (11)

Dario Dongo


(1) ECJ, Case C-336/19. Centraal Israëlitisch Consistorie van België et al. vs Vlaamse Regering. Sentenza 17.12.20 (ECLI:EU:C:2020:1031), http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf;jsessionid=F8A6986885CBF0296DDC3DE7CC6A78D8?text=&docid=235734&pageIndex=0&doclang=IT&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=19800748

(2) ECJ, Case C-426/16, Liga van Moskeeën en Islamitische Organisaties Provincie Antwerpen VZW et al. v. Vlaams Gewest, with the intervention of Global Action in the Interest of Animals (GAIA) VZW. Judgment 29.5.18 (EU:C:2018:335), http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?docid=202301&mode=req&pageIndex=1&dir=&occ=first&part=1&text=&doclang=IT&cid=19777589
(3) ‘Article 4(1) of Regulation No. 1099/2009 provides, as a general principle, that, in the Union, “animals shall be killed only after stunning“. Paragraph 4 of the said article states that, “the provisions of paragraph 1 shall not apply [to animals subjected to particular methods of slaughter prescribed by religious rites, such as those related to ritual slaughter on the occasion of the Feast of Sacrifice], provided that the slaughtering takes place in a slaughterhouse’ (ECJ judgment 29.5.18, para. 53)

(4) ECJ, Case C-497/17. Œuvre d’assistance aux bêtes d’abattoirs vs Ministre de l’Agriculture et de l’Alimentation, Bionoor SARL, Ecocert France SAS, Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO). Judgment 26.2.19 (EU:C:2019:137). http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=211049&pageIndex=0&doclang=IT&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=19805318

(5) Reg. EC 834/07, Recital 1. On animal welfare and organic production, see the previous article https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/progresso/carne-biologica-abc-vs-fake-news-su-la-stampa

(6) ‘Regulation (EC) No. 834/07 (…) should be interpreted as not authorizing the affixing of the organic production logo of the European Union (…) on products from animals that have undergone ritual slaughter without prior stunning‘ (ECJ judgment 26.2.19, operative part)
(7) Ritual slaughter, halal and kosher, without stunning? Attorney Dario Dongo replies. FARE(Food and Agriculture Requirements). 13.2.17, https://www.foodagriculturerequirements.com/archivio-notizie/domande-e-risposte/macellazione-rituale-halal-e-kasher-senza-stordimento-risponde-l-avvocato-dario-dongo

(8) Dario Dongo. Animal welfare, EFSA opinion on cattle at slaughter. Status quo and prospects. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4.11.20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/sicurezza/benessere-animale-parere-efsa-sui-bovini-al-macello-status-quo-e-prospettive

(9) European Court of Auditors (ECA), special report no. 31/2018. ‘Animal welfare in the EU: bridging the gap between ambitious targets and practical implementation’, https://www.eca.europa.eu/Lists/ECADocuments/SR18_31/SR_ANIMAL_WELFARE_IT.pdf

(10) Dario Dongo. Animal welfare, ad maiora. The Role of ConsumAtors. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 10.7.20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/consum-attori/benessere-animale-ad-maiora-il-ruolo-dei-consumattori

(10) Dario Dongo. Slaughterhouses and meat industries. Behind the contagions at Covid-19, German-style caporalism. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 7.7.20, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/sicurezza/macelli-e-industrie-delle-carni-dietro-i-contagi-ai-covid-19-il-caporalato-alla-tedesca

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.